In 1665 a small Egyptian obelisk was found in the monastery garden of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.
Pope Alexander VII asked Bernini to set it up in the square in front of the church. “Make a nice pedestal for it,” he told him.
Bernini had the funny idea to stand the thing on the back of a baby elephant.
Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Elephants were still fabulous creatures in the seventeenth century and a great curiosity. Many artists drew them, though they had never actually set eyes on one.
The Pope was interested in the meaning of the old hieroglyphic inscriptions and asked a famous Egyptologist to translate them for him. “The obelisk is a symbol of sunlight (sole), Holiness,” he told Alexander, who was delighted and fancied that the old stone needle was a glorification of his reign as pope. Poets then rose to the occasion: “The elephant brings this Egyptian obelisk, symbol of the rays of the sun (sole), to the Seventh Alexander as a gift. Isn’t the creature wise? Wisdom has given to you alone (sole), O great Alexander, the gift of the sun (sole).” Or some such nonsense.
(public domain photo)
Bernini may never have seen an elephant. He got the toes wrong. And isn’t that tail a bit thick? But his animal is funny, so who cares? Camels were unknown too. Look at Rubens’ camels.
The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens (detail), Prado Museum, Madrid (museum page here)
The Pope approved Bernini’s design and Bernini turned it over to Ercole Ferrata to carve. Now it stands in the pretty little piazza—one more of the wonderful Bernini creations that adorn Rome. Who was Pope Alexander VII?
Salvador Dalí turned an obelisk-toting elephant into a daddylonglegs for this painting: A Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate One Second Before Waking now in the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
Fair use copy
And Dali’s St. Anthony faces a whole parade of elephants toting obelisks and other attractive cargo:
See it enlarged here